ITV’s Sasha Breslau

Sasha Breslau, head of content acquisitions at ITV, tells World Screen how she has continued to acquire shows and fill schedules despite production disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic, major studios withholding shows for their streaming services and the lack of in-person markets.

The commercial broadcaster ITV and its bouquet of linear and online services provide viewers with some of the most-watched drama, comedy, reality and factual programs in the U.K. As head of content acquisitions, Sasha Breslau complements the ITV family of channels’ offerings with imported programs, many of which have garnered loyal fans.

***Image***WS: Many shows were delayed because of Covid-19. What have you bought in the last year?
BRESLAU: From an acquisition perspective, the big thing was the L.A. Screenings in terms of the pilot season being affected. But what has been quite interesting for me over the past year, and obviously has changed from last summer to the first half of this year, is that we’ve acquired a lot. A lot of it has been relicenses and shows that have been tried and tested and worked really well for us. We’ve continued with existing franchises across a number of channels, such as The Real Housewives and Million Dollar Listing on ITVBe. We have more Giant Lobster Hunters on ITV4, a dangerous-job show from Australia, and the comedies and entertainment shows on ITV2. The Masked Singer from the U.S., for example, was slightly delayed but did get produced, and we managed to make our own version as well. We had Family Guy and American Dad!. Animation has been quite interesting because that has managed to keep going. We picked up a lovely late-night adult comedy last year called Crossing Swords, which is on Hulu in the U.S., and we had it on ITV2 in the autumn of last year. That was funny and entertaining. We’re very happy with it and have the second series coming back at some point this year.

We’ve continued to do quite a bit of activity, but you are absolutely right; the impact of the pandemic meant that production did halt, not just in the U.K., but globally, and that certainly did impact the availability of what we consider the new dramas and comedies.

WS: Are there slots you need to fill? Are there shows that you are waiting for that were delayed?
BRESLAU: There is nothing specifically that we are waiting for that was delayed. The slots that we are looking to fill are the same that we have always looked for. It’s peak and late-night comedy for ITV2 as well as daytime content. Across ITVBe, it’s all dayparts—daytime, peak, shoulder peak—and it’s all the same kind of aspirational, glamorous, reality and lifestyle. We have a lot that comes through from our deal with NBCUniversal; we’ve got a lot of the E! titles and Bravo titles. Yes, we are waiting for some of those shows to go back into production. For instance, The Real Housewives of Melbourne and The Real Housewives of Sydney were both delayed. It will be interesting to see when they resume. Those would come on to our channel as well. Apart from that, it’s just waiting to see what happens as the new U.S. dramas and comedies come through. For instance, some of the CBS network procedurals, rather than having pilots, they just went straight to series. They will be available to screen in the autumn; they just weren’t available as part of the virtual L.A. Screenings that took place in June.

It feels like there is a robust slate of content out there to look at [even if] certain studios are withholding the rights to their shows for their own proprietary SVOD services; Disney, of course, being the prime example. But equally, with Disney, we’ve just done another deal for Family Guy and American Dad!, which means we are the free partner for those shows for the next several years. It also means that although we won’t have box sets available on our video-on-demand service, we do have quite a large number of episodes available for our viewers to catch up on. That’s been a really interesting experience—still partnering with a studio whereby it can protect the rights it needs for its own services but is still able to work with us. The same thing is true when we acquired Lethal Weapon, for instance, where we took the free-to-air and free VOD rights, and I think it was Netflix that took the SVOD window. We are able to look at things in quite creative ways. Hopefully, that will continue, and we are waiting to see what happens with HBO Max and Paramount+. These services have not yet rolled out across Europe. So there’s Warner content, Sony content, Lionsgate content. There is a wealth of opportunity out there when it comes to available shows. I feel quite buoyant about the marketplace.

WS: You mentioned sharing rights with Netflix. Is that common, or does that happen on a case-by-case basis?
BRESLAU: It’s on a case-by-case basis. It depends on the nature of the show. Netflix has been very front-footed in the past about coming on as a partner for commissions. It co-commissioned or co-produced quite a lot of BBC and ITV dramas. But from an acquisitions point of view, yes, of course, it is a competitor in the sense that it will sometimes take the exclusive window, and it won’t be available to take in the first instance. But equally, if you look at the second window later down the line, the value is less, which means you can do some really good deals.

WS: How have you adapted to not having in-person markets?
BRESLAU: We’ve made it work. I’ll be frank; I hate it! The difficulty is that you do lose something when you’re not seeing someone in the flesh. Having the ability to video conference is fantastic; we’re lucky. But equally, it’s not the same as seeing people in real life. The other thing that I’ve found acutely to be the case with the virtual L.A. Screenings, but also with MIPTV and MIPCOM, is that the day job doesn’t stop. There’s something both psychological and physical about physically being out of the office and in a place where you can give your undivided, focused attention to meetings or screenings, and that becomes the primary focus. Whereas I’ve found that trying to do the Screenings but also with the expectation, even if it’s self-imposed, to carry on with everything else that is going on makes it very difficult. You also lose the sense of talking to a team and being on the same page about strategically what you are looking for. Anecdotally, when I’ve spoken to certain studios, Warner or NBCUniversal, they are hearing the same thing from other buyers, other broadcasters in the U.K. Hopefully, we will get back to doing the Screenings in real life and also the markets as well. We’ve all adapted, and we’ve been able to manage it, but in my view, at least, it’s been found wanting.

WS: Are there any other shows you would like to mention?
BRESLAU: The biggest acquisition I did over the past 12 months was the Oprah interview with Meghan and Harry! It did incredibly well for us. It was a very unique deal to negotiate because we were only discussing the rights for free TV, and I think Oprah herself was quite involved. I didn’t speak to her. It was an extraordinary thing to be a part of, and I’m really happy we got it, and it succeeded as well.

Nothing is coming up of that nature at the moment. But as we get to the autumn, I hope that we will start looking at some of the new dramas and comedies across our digital channels. So, watch this space!